Inspired by his work with the initiative My Brother’s Keeper @ Tandon, a student creates a diversity-focused clothing line
Originally published October 23, 2020
In 2019, when Joel Ureña, then an NYU Tandon senior, won a Fellowship for Digital and Inclusive Excellence from the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), he was inspired to explore the Poly Archives, housed right in the Bern Dibner Library. The collections, overseen by archivist Lindsay Anderberg, begin in 1854, when the Brooklyn Collegiate and Polytechnic Institute was formed, and run through the school’s 2014 name change. The Poly Archives contains official records; student publications; and manuscript collections from professors, researchers, and alumni, but no one who has ever experienced the nostalgic pleasures of flipping through old yearbooks would be surprised that Ureña chose to focus on The Polywog, as the volume was known. Paging through editions that dated back as far as 1887, he was struck by images he did not expect to see: Darnley Howard, a black student who earned a degree in mechanical engineering in 1920, remained at Poly to teach for eight years, and left to head Howard University's Mechanical Engineering Department, for example, or the founding members of the Black Students Union in 1969.
With Anderberg’s encouragement, he compiled the images on a website, the Polywog Collection. “I hope that Black and Latinx students at NYU Tandon see this project and know that their legacy in this institution is eternal,” he has said. “They come out of NYU Tandon joining a hallowed group of engineers who have impacted the world through their research, reshaped industries, and strengthened their communities.”
He realized, however, that he could better spread the word by printing the images on articles of clothing, and he consulted with members of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) to create appealing archives-inspired designs that could be produced and sold as fundraisers.
Ureña, who graduated in 2020, hopes the garments not only celebrate the history of Black and Latinx engineers at the school but also serve as an invitation to browse the archives.
UPDATE: September 16, 2022
Although progress was stymied by the pandemic, Ureña’s vision is coming to fruition. Visitors to Dibner can now see an exhibit of historic yearbooks and T-shirts bearing some of the most evocative images from their pages.
Librarians are also planning to hold workshops where students can choose the Polywog images that most resonate with them and print their own T-shirts.
“Joel took our yearbooks — items we looked at all the time in the archives — and applied a fresh lens,” Poly Archivist Lindsay Anderberg said. “He began with a question: ‘Have Black and Latino men like me had a place at Poly/Tandon?’ He was really excited to find that while a specific initiative like My Brother’s Keeper is new, the presence of Black and Latino men at our engineering school is not. The T-shirts Joel created embody and celebrate our history while inviting current students and staff to be curious about histories related to their identities and interests.”
She continued, “To help fulfill Joel’s mission, as part of the exhibit we are extending invitations to the archives. Just write your email on one of the invitation cards and drop it in the wooden box next to the exhibit case. Whether you’re a student wanting to see what your professors looked like a decade ago, a new faculty member seeking to learn more about our history, or a longtime staff member curious about how your department has changed over the years, you’re sure to find something of interest.”